Jesse Goolsby is the recipient of the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize and the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared widely, to include recent and forthcoming publications in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, New Madrid, Harpur Palate, and storySouth. His story “Safety” appears in the 2012 Best American Mystery Stories. He is the Fiction Editor for War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities. A graduate of the US Air Force Academy and the University of Tennessee, he lives and writes in Alexandria, Virginia.
One night I'm watching television alone, my mind breaking from class prep on Raymond Carver's short stories, and up pops a show about people helping one another, real heroes, fresh food to orphanages in Thailand, people dropping their lives, unloading money to strangers on backstreets, healthy college kids massaging the elderly in Des Moines, circumcision and home building in Guatemala, children and adults sobbing and suffering, then healing embraces and peace, all under stringy music that squeezes couch loafers' tear ducts tight, and behind my dry, stable eyes I think: I'm a prick.
So, I'm in a mood, and not just because of the show—my confession is that I pretty much deserve the label: I never return my sister's calls. I've stolen from neighbors (tools) and stores (CDs and produce). I haven't forgiven my father for believing in God, and even refused to attend my mother's funeral because of my father's insistence on prayer and hymn. I've never set foot in a soup kitchen or raised money for breast cancer. I'm ruthless with other people's faults, and I gossip. I tell millions of insignificant lies that help me, and believe me, it doesn't bother my sleep.
This may not sound like much, and it's true, I've never killed anyone, but the damn show and its Thai orphans have me contemplative. I know I can't turn everything around, and, frankly, I don't know if I want to, but the one thing that pisses me off is that I'm alone, a thirty-year-old graduate school student with books and ideas and few friends.
I resolve to do something the next day. After all, benevolence has its benefits, but when I wake up I'm thinking about my class of college freshmen, about how I'm going to sell a story about a blind man, a jealous husband, and a homosocial living room drawing to eighteen-year-olds at a state school, and it isn't until lunch, when I overhear Abe, the fat, Shakespeare expert, mention the same sentimental television show I'd viewed the night before in the break room. Abe's in his fifties, his belly-chest mound testing his suspenders' elasticity. Whenever I run into him my inner voice says heart attack, and I imagine fumbling with AED patches and shocking the wrong side of his chest.
Abe maneuvers near Elliot, a red-haired poet from Lubbock, who at last year's drunken end-of-year party, mentioned a threesome in college. A week after the party, I went to one of her readings. She wore loose clothes that hid her vegetarian figure, but there were still more men than women in the small auditorium. One of her poems elaborated on the different varieties of tomatoes, how they represented types of love and lust. Near the end, in her Texas twang, she rhymed “fucked” with “plucked” without breaking a smile, and I fell in love-lust on the spot. That night I told her the truth, that I loved her hair pulled back off her face, and I lied and told her tomatoes were my favorites. Somehow, in my male mind, I thought this might lead to sex, maybe even with her and a friend, but she told me she hated tomatoes.
“But, your poem,” I said.
“I'm a poet, Ethan.”
Now, back in the lunch room, Abe leans in tight to Elliot as she rubs across a mushroom with a dull butter knife.
“I didn't see the show, Abe,” Elliot says, in reference to the same television show that failed to move me.
“And the circumcisions,” Abe says. “Of all the things they can be doing down there in Guatemala, they choose foreskin?” Abe scissors his right hand index/middle finger combo.
I give the awkwardness just enough time to sink in, and ask Abe, “Did you cry at the end?”
“Who doesn't cry?” he says. “All that music and those old people in Iowa walking for the first time in years. In Shakespeare's time...” And there it is: the transition to the one thing in the universe he can speak to: good 'ol Shakespeare. I know the drill and quickly tune him out. I peer around him, not an easy thing to do, and stare at Elliot in side view, and watch the slippery mushrooms and dull knife battle it out.
Later, when I walk by the lunch room, Abe eats alone. He consumes the same thing every lunch: lasagna and grapes. The rumor is he buys a family-size lasagna each Sunday, bakes it up, and chews through it Monday through Saturday, then buys another. No one knows how often he buys grapes, but they're always the purple ones.
It's one of the worst things to witness: a person alone with his or her food, chewing and staring at the opposite wall. Abe looks big in the tiny, white room. His shoulders are as wide as the table, and he rolls his sleeves and places his plastic knife and fork down after every bite. It's not like people can't stand Abe, but he lacks most of the normal social graces, and in conversation, no matter the subject, he steers to Shakespeare. Most days he eats alone. Most days he walks to his car alone. He tries to talk to people, but he's just annoying enough that most people fake a heavy workload and scramble. Rumor is, he used to be married, but I don't know if I believe it. I don't actually know a single thing about him besides his academic expertise, his dietary routine, and the fact that he's scared of water (another end-of-year party confession). Still, I walk on, leaving Abe with his lasagna.
When I return to my office, I pick up Carver and jump into a story about a fishpond, fathers, and grudges, and then I see Elliot pass in the hallway and hear my internal voice say, “My tomato.” It's ridiculous, but I can't silence the voice, so I put the book down and try to clear my mind, but nothing works until I come to the mental image of Abe, all alone, slumped over, face down in his lasagna in the break room waiting for me to revive him. This new, pitiful image haunts me for a good minute before forcing me up into the hallway, break room bound. Steps away from the room, lightning strikes: I'm not that bad a guy. I'm acting right now out of kind, wholehearted, irrational concern. Then, a revelation: Abe can be my fresh fruit in Thailand, my backrub in Des Moines, my Guatemalan foreskin! And if Elliot notices my generosity, that wouldn't hurt my feelings one bit. Hell, word would spread around the department quickly, and that can only help. So, I step into the lunch room as fat Abe chews his last two purple grapes and pull up a seat, and even though I think I know the answer, I ask him if he's ever fished before.
It's slow going at first. We start with bobbers and worms from lawn chairs on the rocky shore. Well, I should say, we're near the shore. In the beginning, Abe insists on staying back thirty-feet from the shoreline—he says he's not scared of the water, he just needs distance from it—so I cast for him and let the line out as I walk back to him and hand him the pole.
Abe is surprisingly eager, though you'd never know it by his demeanor. He never smiles on our outings, but he sits and holds his pole, and asks me about the strength of the line (10 lb test), what he should do if he hooks into one (just reel like hell), if we let it go or keep it (we're keeping his first). Basically, I'm playing dad, and to be honest, I enjoy having someone with me. At a minimum, it balances out all the other ways I'm a below average human.
And people have noticed. Colleagues joke with me at first, but after a couple outings with Abe, I see their jealous faces in the hallways as if they missed the opportunity to be the “good” guy or girl. Even my department head, who I've talked to maybe five times in my life, stops by one day and tells me he thinks I'm doing a great job, and I consider asking him what part of my studies or teaching he's referring to, but I keep my mouth shut, and as he leaves, he gives me a thumbs up and says, “Thank you.”
Every fishing morning, Abe shows ten minutes early in his 1991 tan Toyota Camry. I can't get him to stop playing Jim Croce, and after a few trips I actually look forward to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”
Seven fishing trips in, and I know a lot more about Abe: he grew up in Syracuse until he was ten, before his family moved to Yuma to escape the cold. He sings in a community chorus (tenor). He thinks the department head is a dick, and he knows 99% of his students are morons. His fear of water? He nearly drowned in a neighbor's pool when he was twelve. I find out his wife left him on a cloudy afternoon after telling him about a man she met online. Abe shares this one evening driving back to my apartment, Croce softly in the background.
“So, she has her suitcase and plane tickets,” Abe says. “I'm sitting in the living room eating a sandwich, and of course I start crying. My chest feels like it's ripping apart. And we go back and forth. She says, 'I don't owe you an explanation,' like that settles it. I can't think of anything to say. Things weren't great, but they weren't bad. The same as everyone. So, I can't think of anything to say, but I blurt out 'What's his name?' and she says 'Cali84.' 'What the hell is Cali84?' I say, but you already know. It's his web ID or whatever. Doesn't even give me the guy's name. 'That's all you need to know,' she says. So, that's all I know.”
“Jesus,” I say.
“Yep,” he says.
“How'd yours get away?”
And when I let him know I've never been married, his face slumps into disappointment. Perhaps he hoped my story wouldn't be too different from his. So, I tell him about my father, how he believes that all the actions of his and everyone else's life are the result of a caring God, that there's a plan for everyone, even my youngest sister who was hit by a car when she was eight. I tell him how Carrie's physical trainer comes over three times a week to bend her legs for her. It's been twenty years, and she endures the agonizing therapy hoping to walk one day, but it's never going to happen, and yet my dad says stuff like, “If it's God's will.” I laugh a sarcastic laugh.
Abe says, “Your dad's right.”
I turn my head and stare at Abe driving his old Toyota. I wait for a “just kidding,” or, “I'm screwing with you,” but Abe doesn't cuss, and his hands stay at ten and two, and his vision remains straight on the road. I'm so angry I could hit him, but I play the quiet routine all the way home, and when I get out and collect my gear, I'm about to say something about his weight or his fat ex-wife or Cali84, but he beats me to it, says, “Ethan. You should believe in God.”
After two weeks of avoiding Abe, he swings by my office.
“Saturday?” he asks, and I almost regret having told two colleagues Abe's wife-leaving story.
“We're sitting right up on the water,” I say pointedly.
That Saturday Abe and I sit on the shoreline in our flimsy chairs when his pole flutters ever so slightly. He wears a red lifejacket, and the tip of his pole barely bends, but Abe pops up and thrusts the pole into my chest.
“Reel the bastard in, Abe,” I say, putting my hands in the air like I'm innocent.
And so he does. Abe reels like a mad man, leaning back, belly out, and the pole still barely bends—I'm thinking it's a stick—so I say, “Might be a stick,” but Abe's not listening; he burns the line in, and this is fishing's eden: the quick jolt, the invisible fight below the surface, the pressure and power. You never know if you're going to have a battler on your hands, so I keep on him, “Go. Go. Go. Do it, Abe,” I say, and he does; he lets out a “Woo,” and he reels all the way to the end when the bobber crests, and he rears back one final time and yanks the pole, and a tiny bluegill flies out of the water and lands near our feet. Somehow he's hooked the thing through the gills. I lean down to pick the fish up, but I'm so excited for Abe, I stand and offer a high five, but he refuses. And it's then, with my hand still in the air, that I notice his flushed face, his hands already on the top of his head pulling at his thinning hair.
“Throw it back. Throw it back. Throw it back,” he says quickly and softly.
“It's your first, Abe,” I say.
“Back,” he says.
I hold the fish in my hands, and it squirms because the damn hook is in good.
After a few seconds I know I'm going to have to cut the line. Abe leans in.
“Are you getting it out?” he says.
“Abe. You don't have to look.”
“Is it stuck?”
I turn my back to Abe and in one motion snip the line and wheel and fling the bluegill back into the lake.
After the “throw it back” incident, I guess we're done with fishing altogether, but the next Wednesday, Abe shows up at my office holding waders that look twenty-years old. It makes no sense. It took us seven trips just to get up to the shoreline.
“You think you might be rushing it?” I say.
“I got these at a yard sale. They're waders,” he says. “You can go in the water, but not get wet.”
“I'm ready,” he says.
“We'll take it easy.”
“Did you know there's fishing in Shakespeare?” he says.
One night I'm loading up my shopping cart with Ramen noodles. It's about all I can afford from my measly teaching stipend, and for some reason I haven't tired of them. I throw the fourth huge bundle on top when Elliot taps me on the shoulder. Chicken and beef flavored noodles fill my entire cart. She asks me how I am, and without any logical explanation I hear myself say, “Just buying Ramen for the homeless.”
Elliot likes this enough to have dinner with me later that night. I hide the Ramen in my closet. Elliot wears a red sundress and brings wine. She's pulled her hair back, and I can see the small freckles that dot her cheeks. During dinner—trout I'd caught on the river and four ears of corn I stole from a farmer's market—she doesn't lean toward me. She's polite and laughs at my nervous jokes, but I can't help but notice that she looks at me like she doesn't expect anything different from me than the thousands of other men she's met in her life. After the meal we sit out on the cramped balcony and watch the yellow city lights. There's a Little League game a block away, and I hear the young announcer calling out pitch counts. Nothing's wrong, but neither Elliot nor I say anything for awhile. A car in the parking lot starts up.
“I played baseball,” Elliot says. “And not softball. Little League against the boys.”
“I played against a girl,” I say. “She was good.” That's a lie.
“They hated it when I got a hit,” she says. “I remember pitchers crying if I hit off of them. And of course, all the fans would clap and whisper, 'she's a girl,' 'did you see that?', 'a girl hit a double.' The other team's fans would clap for me. Pathetic.”
“One team in my league had two girls,” I say, then realize I should just shut up and let her talk.
“I hit a homer once, and I forgot to touch second,” Elliot says. “Instead of calling me out, they wanted me to go and run the bases again. Free pass.”
“There's a poem.”
“But I didn't,” she says, and pauses. “I stayed in the dugout.” When she proudly says the last bit, her tone changes—a touch higher—and I figure she's pushing the facts.
I think to myself, just let her talk, but I say, “Hard to believe you just stayed there.”
I watch Elliot inhale. There's traffic nearby and the muffled applause of the game. I hear my apartment-mate come in two-hours early. He yells, “Smells like fish.” I excuse myself and run in to let him know the situation. When I return, Elliot's chair is half a foot closer to mine. The ball field lights click off one by one.
“Sorry,” I say. “He doesn't like fish.”
She doesn't look at me when I sit.
“I didn't stay in the dugout,” Elliot says. “I jogged the bases. Slowly. And I don't care what you say. I liked it.” A pause. “And yes, it would make a great poem.”
She smiles and touches my arm, and suddenly I'm alive and strong, and I consider if I should say it, then I do: “The Ramen noodles are mine. They're stashed in my closet.”
One time Abe takes me to breakfast before heading out to the river, and I watch him pound three servings of pancakes, butter, no syrup.
“I thought you only ate Lasagna and grapes.”
“I thought you only ate that noodle shit.”
After eating, we drive out to the river, and the mosquitoes swarm us as Abe and I practice casting on the riverbank.
At one point I have to take Abe's hands in mine and fling the line out together so he understands what a good cast feels like. And then we're in the water, and Abe, in his past-prime waders says, “Can't feel the water. Not in it.” The dark water rises up to our hips as we cast at a fork of a muddy tributary creeping into the main river. The afternoon is clear, and I pull in four fish before Abe gets a hang of it and starts casting where he aims.
It's not perfect, but Abe's happy and we talk about our English department, and then about fishing, and I even let Abe lecture me about the weakness of Othello and the glory of Twelfth Night, and he tells me that Shakespeare was the last writer to pen happy endings, but I don't feel like arguing.
Then the rhythm of the casting takes over like a daytime lullaby and I absorb the muddy bottom of the river and the cottonwoods and the warm sun. I feel myself slip into a comfortable rhythm as I cast toward a shadowed spot near a boulder, time and again. I see the lure splash onto the shadow, and I think about how my father taught me to fish years ago, and then about Elliot, how I like her lies—apparently, there was no threesome in college—how I like her poems that have nothing to do with her. Then my line snags and I come to and hear myself say “shit.” I'm tugging and tugging and popping my rod because I really don't want to disturb the shadows, and I hear Abe's voice, a distorted “Ethan,” and again, “Ethan,” strained and nervous. When I turn around, he's somehow far from me and slightly sunk under the surface of the water where the main river current meets our sluggish tributary. I see the afternoon river pour into his waders, taking him under. I try to move, but the water and the mud slow me and I yell to Abe, “Cut it. Cut your shoulder straps.” I cut the air with my index/middle finger combo and then mime cutting my straps. The cold current wraps and weighs his body, and I know he doesn't have a knife for his old waders. Suddenly, I'm out of my waders and swimming at Abe's distant neck and face and raised hands bobbing and moving away from me, and then he's under, just his thrashing arms show, then his white face bobs up, gasping. I'm thrashing and getting nowhere as he floats downstream, further from me. I see Abe's arms, then his face burst up from the river with his open mouth and closed eyes, now carried by the full force of the main river's current. He goes under again with his hands just above the surface, and I see his hands for awhile, just his white palms, and once more his forearms thrashing, and his elbows, then just his hands. Then one hand on the surface. Then nothing, but water, and more water. I wait with my blasting heart for his hand, his head or his back, but there's nothing except insects and summer and a gentle breeze. The river seems so calm and unburdened as it flows heavy downriver. I watch a tangle of brush and stags as I veer to the bank and stand in water to my hips and tremble in the shadows of bank trees. There should be noise, but it's quiet. Suddenly, a group of teenagers appear on inner tubes hugging the distant bank, far away, slowly floating in brightly colored shorts and bikinis under the clear sky. They don't feel my terror, and I watch them start around the bend just past the brush and stags. I want to shout to them, but something stops me. The world starts to spin, but I can still see the teenagers. I watch them, then hear the girl second from the back scream and raise her legs in the air and point at something in the water. Her scream makes me reach for my ears.
“So, Carver was a drunk, moved around all the time, was unhappy most of his life, and wrote stories about sad people and their miserable lives,” says a dark-haired student in the third row. It's my third week back after Abe's death. She continues: “And the point of this story is that these two young people dancing in the guy's driveway are happy now, but they're going to be miserable just like this poor, melancholy guy with all of his possessions outside, when they should be inside?” But, it doesn't sound like a question.
That day, I eat alone. The significance is not lost on me. I see colleagues walk by, and when they notice it's me, their bodies lurch into a half stop. They want to say something, but they don't know what. They don't want me to eat alone, but they don't care enough to sit. Most stop and grab the door jam and wish me the best, or simply nod.
I realize I was wrong: eating alone isn't the worst. Sometimes it's nice to have distance and patience with food. I've gone through the odd pain and confused responsibility of the accident, and lately, I've wanted to be alone, but today Elliot walks in and sits with me. This is the worst: I know she's started to see someone from her gym, but she hasn't told me yet, and she sits across the table, and my god, she wears her hair back so I see all of her face. She puts her hands on the table, and I pray that she reaches across for my hands, but she doesn't. She tells me it's okay, that everything will be okay, but I don't think she believes it.
A couple months later, I find a seat in the back of the room as Elliot sips water on the undersized stage. The small auditorium is almost full when she launches into her first line of verse. Again, it's from memory: just Elliot in a blue dress, and she moves so fluidly in her slight space, her hips gently swaying, her sweeping gaze, and occasionally she closes her eyes and enters that place of self-listening and peace. But, something is off. The slant rhymes and pacing twist unconvincingly, and her introductions to the poems offer little insight. It's not overt, but the crowd knows what I know, and there's a collective murmur in between poems.
Elliot sips her water, and looks over the audience knowingly, and says, “This is new.” All the rhymes vanish. Her pacing is quick then slow in the exact right spots, and the poem takes us to a boy-dominated ball field in Lubbock, Texas where she grew up. The audience is there with her and the easterly wind that carried the 0-2 delivery she belted over the left field fence. We listen to her miss second base and sit in the dugout while the umpires and both coaches beg her to come back out and run the bases again. But she refuses to go until she spots her smoking, weathered father lean on the outfield fence. Something cracks inside of her in the dugout and she rises and runs the bases slowly, and we feel the way her twelve-year-old self soaks in her gender and the second, less enthusiastic applause. I hear the dusty squish of each base under her right-cleated foot and her raspy-voiced father cheering her name above it all for the first and only time. Then, after the game he comes to her and picks her up and says “Forget boys. You're my girl.” She smells the Marlboros on her father's skin and feels the caked cement on his worked fingers as he brushes the infield dirt from her cheek. In the auditorium Elliot's voice cracks, then cracks again, and I feel my nose and eyes start up and Elliot wipes at her face. I want to run to her on the small stage, but I don't. She takes a sip of water and we're back with Elliot the girl, in her black-and-orange Giants Little League uniform as her father closes the door on his Chevy truck. He drives away as she waits for her mom to pick her up because that's who she lives with because the court says her parents can't be in the same place at the same time. She stands alone, waiting, and Elliot the poet pauses, then ends with her father's name—Gabriel—and I pull my wet hands away from my face.
I wait in line at the end to say hello. I want her to know that I came, for her to see my red eyes and say something. She notices me four people back from her and throws me a pre-emptive thank you smirk. And I think about her baseball poem. I want to believe it all, and I think about asking her if that's the real story as I move up in line. I remember our night on the balcony where I would have believed anything she told me as long as she didn't leave. Elliot folds her arms in front of her as she speaks to the one man between us. I overhear him talking about grape tomatoes. Then, unannounced, I think of Abe in the white lunchroom, on the rocky shore, stepping into the water for the first time. The images jumble together, and I replay the afternoon in the river, but this time he's close to me when the water pours into his waders, and instead of swimming to him as he's slowly swept downstream, I stand there and watch him wail and drown because I'm not a hero. I see myself entering the lunchroom the moment I decided to do something about Abe and his life, and asking Abe if he had ever fished before, and him thinking about it, chewing on his purple grapes, swallowing, and saying, “I'm not scared of water,” or was it, “you should believe in God?" When I snap to the present, there's no one in front of me, just me and Elliot. She waits on my greeting, and I realize I no longer care if her poem is true. I just want Abe to eat alone. I want my sister to heal and walk again. I want to touch my dad's arm the morning we lower my mom into the ground. But, it's too hard to move to those places all at once, so I stand still, and after a moment, Elliot steps toward me, close enough for me to smell her lavender soap, close enough to take me some place where things end well.